Making Young Children a Priority in the Choctaw Nation

Children of different agesEarly childhood programs in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma have joined forces to improve outcomes for young children and their families. Their Tribal Early Learning Initiative (TELI) is working to create and support a seamless, high-quality early childhood system serving families from pregnancy to kindergarten entry.

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is one of six tribal organizations to receive TELI funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (ACF). They also receive a grant from ACF’s Tribal Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (TMIECHV) program.

“We first began our meetings as directors of our programs to know each other better and what each other’s programs are doing,” said Angela Dancer, Home Visitation Senior Director. “That process was eye-opening and beneficial on a director level, so we decided to roll this out to our staff, which is 200 to 300 people.”

The participating programs include the Chahta Inchukka TMIECHV Program, Chahta Vlla Apela TMIECHV Program, Child Care Assistance, Child Care Development Program, Early Head Start, Head Start, and Support for Expectant and Parenting Teens.

The idea of an annual Choctaw Day of the Young Child emerged as a way to bring staff together and to raise community awareness about child development and resources available to families. The first event, held on April 8, 2014, included an official declaration by Chief Gregory Pyle.

“The biggest moment of the day for me was to watch the Chief sign the declaration and make it a public notice that our early childhood system was a priority for his administration,” said Dancer. “The Chief and our Tribal Council members sat on the floor and read stories to the Head Start children. There was media taking pictures as our Council truly engaged with our children and all the educators of the Choctaw Nation who provide these services.”

On the second Day of the Young Child in April 2015, the tribe’s early childhood programs signed a Memorandum of Understanding on how they would collaborate across programs to reach more families and serve them better. Examples include developing one brochure that describes all of the programs and a unified application for services.

The event also kicked off a year of autism awareness activities, including training on autism for program staff and local events for families at Head Start and child care centers. Presentations were made later that year by two nationally known speakers: Temple Grandin, a Colorado State University professor who has autism, and her mother, Eustacia Cutler.

Local events were designed to offer both learning and fun. “It was kind of like a carnival, with activities for children, like bounce houses, and also booths where people offered information about their services,” said Katy Pruitt, Director of Head Start. “We had a lot of participation from the families as well as community members. In fact, they asked us if we were going to have that again this year. And there was food, also. Did I say hot dogs? That was a big deal, too.”

Joint staff trainings across programs also have been well-received. “One thing that I really like about bringing staff together is that we have a face we can put with the name and feel more comfortable reaching out to that person,” said Brandi Smallwood, Chahta Inchukka TMIECHV Program Director. “We know who to call to refer families and can work hand-in-hand with them.”

“I feel like we’re talking the same language, and our staff is also,” said B.J. Robinson-Ellison, Director of Early Head Start. “We’re coming together as one early childhood system so our team can see the unity of these programs and that we’re going to support one another.”

For more information, contact Angela Dancer via email or 580-326-7758. Sarah Rowland, TELI Coordinator, and Monona Dill, Child Care Development Fund Administrator, also contributed to this story.

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is a federally recognized tribe, with a service area of nearly 12,000 square miles. The tribe’s mission is to enhance the lives of all members through opportunities designed to develop healthy, successful, and productive lifestyles. Find out more about The Choctaw Nation.

ACF’s TELI supports American Indian tribes in growing and sustaining critical early childhood systems to meet the needs of young children, families, and the community as a whole and increase the number of children in quality early care and education settings. The TELI is administered by ACF’s Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary and Inter-Departmental Liaison for Early Childhood Development, in partnership with the Office of Head Start, the Office of Child Care, and the TMIECHV program. Find out more about the TELI.

ACF’s TMIECHV program provides grants to tribal entities to develop, implement, and evaluate home visiting programs in American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) communities. The grants are intended to help develop and strengthen tribal capacity to support and promote the health and well-being of AIAN families, expand the evidence base around home visiting in tribal communities, and support and strengthen cooperation and linkages between programs that serve tribal children and their families. Get more information about the Tribal Home Visiting program and grantees.